People of all levels remember 76ers legend Darryl Dawkins at viewing
People of all levels remember 76ers legend Darryl Dawkins at viewing
Forty years ago, Helmet Freed, moonlighting as a driver for an Allentown limousine service, probably became one of the first Lehigh Valley residents to cross paths with Darryl Dawkins when he was sent to the Spectrum to bring the newly drafted Philadelphia 76ers rookie to Bethlehem for a promotional event at a bank.
Tuesday afternoon, Freed stood under a shade tree outside St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Catasauqua, waiting to be one of the first to pay last respects to the man known as “Chocolate Thunder” who had become ingrained in the Lehigh Valley community over the past 15 years.
Dawkins, a 14-year NBA veteran who later settled in the Lehigh Valley after marrying the former Janice Holderman of Catasauqua in 2001, died of an apparent heart attack Thursday morning at the age of 58.
An estimated 600 people paid their respects to Dawkins and his family during a four-hour public viewing Tuesday. It began about a half-hour earlier than its 4 p.m. scheduled starting time because the family didn’t want to inconvenience the people already gathering in the hot afternoon son.
Those people included former boxing heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, former 76ers teammates Billy Cunningham (who also coached Dawkins for five of his seven seasons with the team), former New Jersey teammate Tim Bassett, and current NBA players such as Jason Thompson of the Golden State Warriors and this year’s first overall draft pick, Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But most of the NBA family will mourn his death and celebrate his life Wednesday at a private, invitation-only service at the church. Tuesday’s crowd was dominated by people who got to know Dawkins through the church they attended, through Dawkins’ work with children in the area and through other community activities since his arrival as coach of the Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs minor league basketball team in 1998.
Freed said it was Dawkins’ “real personality” that enabled him to fit into the community so well.
“He’s very down to earth,” Freed said.
“He loved everybody,” his cousin, also named Darryl Dawkins – “He was Darryl L. Dawkins, I was Darryl E. Dawkins” – said with a smile.
“He was just a happy-go-lucky guy,” he said. “If you called his cellphone, he always had some slogan or joke on his voice mail, if you didn’t get him. He was just a happy-go-lucky guy, and I think the world should learn something from that. Everyone and anyone he became involved with became a friend. We’re all on borrowed time. As a family, we’re grieving, but at the same time, it’s a home-going celebration.”
“My dad said if he grew up in this day and age he’d be an absolute superstar with his charisma he had and everything else he had,” said 39-year-old Keith Kohler, who stood with his son Aidan waiting for the doors to open.
Aiden Kohler and Dawkins’ son Nicholas are eighth-graders at Orefield Middle School and played on the same lacrosse team.
“When he came to practice it was almost like a circus-type atmosphere,” Kohler said. “The kids all kind of flocked to him and he just looked like a giant among them. … He always had time for everybody.”
Cunningham had just completed the 10th season of his Hall of Fame playing career when the 76ers made Dawkins the fifth selection in the 1975 NBA Draft out of Maynard Evans High School in Orlando, Fla. It was the first time an NBA team drafted a player out of high school in the first round.
“I thought they were crazy … how could you draft somebody out of high school?” said Cunningham, who would play one season with Dawkins before becoming his coach in November 1977. “And then when I got the chance to see him on the court I just couldn’t believe the talent and the personality, of course, which was really the beautiful part of him, what a caring, loving man he was.”
“He always had a minute for kids, for people, for signing autographs, to visit children in the hospital – whatever it might be,” Cunningham said. “That’s what he was all about.”
The fact that Dawkins spent the last 17 years of his life here showed Cunningham how much he had matured as a person.
“At 18, 19 years old, he could never have lived up here in the Lehigh Valley,” Cunningham said. “That wasn’t in his personality. But with age and maturity he became so comfortable in his surroundings, his children look absolutely wonderful, and he enjoyed what he was doing here so much. I happened to see him about a month ago down at a Sixers event and he was the same guy I knew 40 years ago… asking everyone how they were doing, caring about people, giving time to everyone there and just loving to talk.”
Freed, who lived in Catasauqua the last 41 years, and Dawkins’ path crossed again in church. Both were members of St. Paul’s
“I looked at him and said, ‘Darryl Dawkins, do you remember me?’ He said no, and I said, ‘Remember, I was your driver in 1975’,” Freed said. “He looked at me and smiled. ‘Now I do,’ he said, and started talking about that day.”
Stephen Hoffman came to the viewing with his wife Karen wearing a T-shirt from a June 6, 2002, Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs giveaway promoting a coaching showdown between Dawkins and NBA Hall of Fame center Kareen Abdul-Jabbar of the Oklahoma Storm.
“I was a 76ers fan and I remember Dawkins as a player,” Hoffman said. “And he did a lot for people in the area.”
Greg Marmaros, manager of the Trivet Diner in South Whitehall Township, met Dawkins years ago at a local club, Banana Joe’s.
Dawkins was a Banana Joe’s regular.
“He was my tallest customer,” Marmaros said, adding he “ate healthy, … lots of chef salads.”
He was also kind to strangers who mugged with him for photos and never seemed put off about telling another story about his playing days.
Not that Dawkins always ate that way, however.
“We all have a story about Darryl,” said Perry Schwartz, who helped Dawkins develop a soft drink in the 1980s called Chocolate Thunder.
His was about the time he bought the big center a bucket of Popeyes chicken and watched him eat the whole thing.
Freed remembered stopping at the former Hess’s Patio Restaurant in 1975.
“Darryl wolfed down his prime rib – and it was a big one – in a few minutes, then turned to [teammate] Doug Collins and asked, ‘You going to eat that?’ When he said no, Darryl just said, ‘Slide it over here.’ “
On the way home, he said, Dawkins had him find a KFC restaurant because he “was still hungry.”
Even though he last played in an NBA game more than 20 years ago, Dawkins has had an impact on the younger generation of players through the league’s NBA Cares program.
That was the first exposure Thompson, who grew up a 76ers fan in South Jersey, had to Dawkins.
“The personality that Darryl had, a lot of people say he didn’t want to see you sad,” Thompson said. “He wanted to see everyone laughing and joyful like he was. … That’s the guy you always want to be around. You could have a bad day and he was the type of person that would change it and make you smile.
“Giving back to kids … some people think we have to do that,” he said. “We don’t. He was the type of guy who wanted to do it regardless of any type of situation. I’m all for a guy that’s like that. You can have success on the court, but what he brought to the table off the court was important too.”
Towns came to Catasauqua to pay respect to the person he called “Uncle Darryl.’
“He’s family. He’s like my uncle,” said Towns, a native of Piscataway, N.J. “I mean, I’ve grown up with him since I was a young age. All I know is ‘Uncle Darryl.’ “